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The Detrimental Effect of Natural Disasters on Public Health and What Technology Can Do About It
Posted by David Cant on September 4, 2012

The drought that recently hit the Midwestern United States is one of the worst since the 1980s, but as writer and researcher, Charlotte Kellogg explains here, there are myriad technological advancements that can help deal with and prevent the threats to public health such natural disasters cause. Those with public health certifications and qualifications can attest that while droughts and natural disasters cannot be avoided, many of their negative effects are preventable, a topic recently noted in a Veritas blog about the farm safety.

The Detrimental Effect of Natural Disasters on Public Health and What Technology Can Do About It

Bloomberg Businessweek reports the drought that struck the Midwestern United States in 2012 was the “worst in generations.” The effects of this natural disaster include poor yields, surging crop prices, public health concerns and an uncertain future in what is normally the nation’s most productive agricultural region. However, scientists are optimistic that certain technologies will not only somewhat mitigate the negative consequences of the current drought, but also help prevent a similar outcome in the future.

Despite early planting by farmers, Businessweek’s Jeff Wilson reported in late August 2012 that crop ratings have reached their worst levels since 1988. The nationwide corn yield has fallen by 13% to 10.779 billion bushels, which is the lowest in six years. Corn is not the only crop to be hit hard. Soybeans also suffered this year; current estimates predict that this year’s output will be down 12% from 2011. As a result, corn prices have risen by 60% since June, and the United Nations announced in August that global food prices are expected to dramatically increase. This forecast does not bode well for the planet’s already high rates of malnutrition.

The effects of the Midwest drought reach beyond agriculture for food. Production of ethanol, a biofuel rendered from corn, has also been affected. National Geographic reports that production has reached its lowest level in two years, while global prices of the alternative fuel have increased by 40%.

Poor yields and high prices are not the only drought-related concern. The Centers for Disease Control reports that several negative health effects occur as a result of drought. Since much of the U.S. population depends on surface water and groundwater for drinking, reduced levels can cause dehydration among the general population; in addition, concentrations of pollutants become higher when water levels are diminished. When farmers use recycled water, they risk exposing people who consume their crops to salmonella, E. coli and other food-borne bacteria. Other concerns include reduced air quality, reduced sanitation and personal hygiene, as well as increased rates of asthma, heat stroke and exhaustion.

To combat the effects of heat and drought, employers are urged to mitigate the effects of dehydration among their workforce during times of below-average rainfall. They should encourage employees to drink water instead of sugary soft drinks, and adopt a diet that includes several servings of fruits and vegetables and reduces fat and sodium. They should also ensure that workers are taking regular breaks throughout the day, remaining hydrated during work projects and using sunscreen if they are exposed to open air.

In response to the drought, scientists emphasize the importance of certain techniques available to farmers. As The Washington Post reported in August 2012, one option for farmers is production of genetically modified crops. For example, farmers who planted DroughtGard – a GM corn crop produced by Monsanto – report that the modified strains have performed better than unmodified corn crops. Another strategy is no-till farming, a process by which farmers plant seeds without grinding up the soil. To optimize this practice, many farmers have used computer technology that allows them to analyze their soil and determine how much fertilizer should be applied in order to produce a healthy yield. Finally, some farmers have taken the ‘holistic’ approach to planting in order to counteract the drought. In 2009, ABC Rural reported a sustainable farm in Australia that “[adjusted] stocking rate to carrying capacity”, or calculated the number of livestock to match both the available land and the average rainfall. This technique allowed the farm to thrive despite a drought that hit the region. All of these strategies effectively work to reduce both directly and indirectly negative consequences of drought.

These strategies have allowed Americans and American farmers to withstand the worst U.S. drought in more than two decades. When the U.S. is next hit with unusually low rainfall and high temperatures, these techniques stand to be invaluable in the coming years.


David Cant is a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner extraordinaire. He has a wealth of Industry experience and is the MD of Veritas Consulting. David also Blogs about Health and Safety here Health and Safety Consultants

His aim is to flavour Health and Safety with integrity, served with a side of humour You can find David on - Twitter and Google also Linkedin

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